I guess you could say Jim Newman was my childhood hero. He was also my best friend. 43 years later, we are still good friends.
Newman and I met in first grade when we were both 6 years old. Small for his age, but shy to no one, it was clear to students and teachers alike he was going places. Maybe we knew his destiny because he told us first. Newman stated early on that he was going to be a Broadway star, and we had no reason to doubt him.
Who else but a star would have the guts to perform a Michael Jackson song in front of his peers during the school’s talent show? It was a tough room, but Newman made it look easy. He made all his performances look easy, but even then he was hard at work, preparing himself to play bigger and better venues.
Newman and I spent the next 12 years together in school participating in various choirs, plays and musicals, and though I was only ever cast as Cowboy Number 5 to his lead role as Curly in our high school production of Oklahoma, I was never jealous. Newman was meant for the spotlight and swaying behind him to a chorus of “The Farmer and the Cowman” was a privilege.
Newman grew up in Center Point, Alabama and attended E.B. Erwin Elementary and High School. After graduation, he enrolled at Birmingham-Southern College, where he earned a BFA in music and theatre in 1986.
Within days of completing college, Newman was on a plane headed to the Big Apple and the rest, as they say, is history.
Since his move to NYC, Newman has appeared in numerous Broadway shows, including Tommy, Steel Pier, Sunset Boulevard, Minnelli on Minnelli and Curtains, which went on to win the Tony for Best Musical. He also starred in the National Tour of Big and was featured in Roxette’s video The Look, which topped the Billboard charts back in the late ‘80s. Newman has shared the stage with Glenn Close, Betty Buckley, Ann Reinking, Kristin Chenowith, Bebe Neuwirth, David Hyde Pierce and Liza Minnelli, just to mention a few.
This month Newman will be appearing once again on the Great White Way in the new musical Hands on a Hardbody. HOAH is based on the 1997 cult classic documentary about a Texas auto dealership competition. In the stage show, Newman plays car salesman Mike Ferris.
Weld: How did you become involved with Hands on a Hardbody?
JN: I auditioned for the show for the La Jolla Playhouse run. I was working in Florida when I was called back, but couldn’t get back to New York, so they sent me a couple of songs and asked me to put myself on tape. I never heard back. Then I got a call from my agent saying they were having problems with the actor they had hired. They reviewed my audition tapes and wanted to know if I was still interested and available. I said yes because I loved the piece. Three days later I joined the cast and 9 days later I had learned the entire show and opened with the rest of the cast! Meant to be.
Weld: Tell us about your character.
JN: I play Mike Ferris, a used car salesman who runs the dealership and the contest and has seriously questionable moral fiber.
Weld: What makes the HOAH’s story line so fascinating to audiences?
JN: I think because it’s about real people in tough financial times with really high hopes. People connect. It treats the characters with respect and doesn’t patronize the audience. Even though it is set in Texas, it could just as well be Minnesota or Oregon or New York for that matter. We’re all struggling.
Weld: You’ve had more than one opening night on Broadway, Have you developed a sense of if a show is going to be a hit or not?
JN: I have no idea whether a show is going to be be a hit or not, but I can tell if the show is good. This one is good.
Weld: You’ve worked with some high profile people. Who’s had the biggest impact on you, good or bad?
JN: There have been some stars that are a little nutty and some a little needy, but the one that has had the biggest impact is probably David Hyde Pierce. Besides his talent, it’s his work ethic and his tireless generosity and unwavering gratefulness. It’s an exhausting process putting together a show, and the demands and pressure put on the stars are doubled. And he just never ever broke or diva’d out or lost his cool or kindness. An amazing man.
Weld: You’ve been performing for many years. Does the audition process get any easier?
JN: Auditioning is actually what we do for a living. It never ends, so I don’t let it get to me. I try to be as prepared as I can, breathe and then try to leave it in the audition room. Of course, the more you want the job, the more nervous you get. If I really blow it, I’m bummed out, so I’ll buy some new sneakers and I feel better.
Weld: What was your worst moment on stage?
JN: Worst moment was falling center stage during the last note of my song opening night of Minnelli on Minnelli, knowing all the stars and important people were in the audience.
Weld: And your best?
JN: I’ve had a lot of bests, but the closing night of Curtains, when the audience was filled with fans who broke into applause after I spoke my lines to show they were grateful for what I had brought to the show. It was a very moving experience.
Weld: You recently told me that you refuse to read your own reviews. Why not?
JN: Reviews stick in your head and make you self-conscious onstage after you read them. The bad ones hurt your feelings and the good ones rarely seem good enough. It’s a lose-lose situation. If it’s really good, I’ll read it when the show closes. But a co-star once forced me to read one when I played the leading player in a pre-Broadway revival production of Pippin. I had been told all the reviews were good except this one and my costar said it was absurd, almost comical, so I should read it.
I’ve never forgotten it: “Jim Newman, playing the role originated by Ben Vereen, spends the evening trying to prove that a white man can have as much soul as a black man, at times sounding like the replacement singer at the airport lounge, at other times like that embarrassing guy at a party who will do anything – including putting the lampshade on his head – to be entertaining.”
Weld: Do you have any aspirations to direct or produce a play/musical?
JN: I will direct one day, but now I’m still having a really good time on stage.
Weld: When you were performing in Minnelli on Minnelli, you developed a close friendship with Liza Minnelli. Give us some insight on Liza the person.
JN: Liza is beloved because she is one of the gang. She includes everyone and treats everyone as equals. She creates a very close working environment so everyone feels safe and included. She wears her heart on her sleeve unabashedly and because she is a public figure and larger than life, the press and people think it’s funny to be cruel about her weight or personal life, but it really hurts her, so you find yourself being very protective of her. At the same time that neediness can be exhausting, so people burn out with her.
I feel like I got an amazing piece of a legend in her prime! When she would come get me in her robe after the show to meet someone, we’d walk back to her dressing room and it would be Gregory Peck or Debbie Reynolds while Kevin Spacey, Florence Henderson and Molly Shannon were waiting in the green room with the common folk. She’s Hollywood royalty. Just an amazing time.
Weld: Is it strange having a celebrity friend?
JN: It’s only strange when you’re in public with them and you realize what they mean to other people and how they can’t just go into CVS and buy beef jerky. Also they sometimes don’t actually have time for you if their schedule is crazy, and that’s a bummer.
Weld: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a professional actor?
JN: My advice would be if you love it the most, give it a shot. Don’t live in regret. And if you find that the professional life of an actor isn’t for you, that’s fine, but stay creative. It will ease your path and reduce your frustration.
Weld: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
JN: In ten years, I’ll be doing this, but I’ll have a country house with a Burmese mountain dog.
Weld: If a movie about your life were made, who would you cast to play you?
JN: Ryan Gosling, of course. [Laughs.]
Hands on a Hardbody opens March 21, 2013 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City.